Former GOP state chair: It’s “eminently possible” that Tom Tancredo could be the party’s nominee for governor

“[Tom Tancredo] will immediately become the front runner in the race.”

Tom Tancredo at Pro Police rally (Chloe Aiello/Denverite)
Tom Tancredo at Pro Police rally (Chloe Aiello/Denverite)
Tom Tancredo speaks at a rally in support of law enforcement in Denver in 2016. (Chloe Aiello/Denverite)

The entry of Tom Tancredo into the crowded Republican primary field for Colorado governor will put pressure on the other candidates to move to the right to compete with him, and it’s entirely possible Tancredo could get the nomination, said a former chair of the state party.

“He will immediately become the front runner in the race,” said Dick Wadhams, who chaired the Colorado GOP during the disastrous 2010 governor’s race that saw Tancredo get 36.4 percent of the vote as a third-party candidate. “… He does have a solid base of support among Republican primary voters. There is a floor for his candidacy. The question is: What is his ceiling?”

Even if Tancredo doesn’t prevail, he’ll shape the Republican primary in significant ways, Wadhams said.

“He will probably move the Republican primary campaign to the right, just as Jared Polis has clearly moved the Democratic primary to the left,” he said. “You can see candidates thinking they have to move right. The question is whether there will be any candidates on the Republican side who will have the courage not to do that.”

Without coming out and saying that Tancredo would lose in the general election (I mean, who really knows anything anymore when it comes to politics?), Wadhams thinks there is a formula that helps Republicans win statewide office in Colorado — and Tancredo doesn’t follow it.

Wadhams sees former Gov. Bill Owens, whose campaign he ran, and Sen. Cory Gardner as models — candidates with strong conservative bonafides who don’t come off as too ideological or too rigid or too angry. Successful candidates will be those who can run on essentially the same agenda in the Republican primary and in the general election, he said.

Let’s take a moment to review who Tancredo is and why he’s running.

A former junior high teacher, Tancredo’s political career goes back to the 1970s. He served two terms in the state legislature, worked in the Department of Education under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and headed up the libertarian-leaning think tank the Independence Institute. In 1998, he was elected to represent Colorado’s Sixth Congressional District, the seat now held by Rep. Mike Coffman, where he became known for his anti-immigration views. In 2008, he briefly ran for president on that same anti-immigration platform.

Since then, Tancredo has run for governor of Colorado twice. In 2010, he jumped in as a Constitution Party candidate while the Republican nominee, Dan Maes, floundered, and he got 36.4 percent to Maes’ 11 percent as Gov. John Hickenlooper walked away with the thing. Wadhams was the chair of the state party during this time. In 2014, Tancredo ran again and lost in the Republican primary to Bob Beauprez, who then lost to Hickenlooper in the general.

Tancredo started talking about running again in August, after a VDARE conference in Colorado Springs was canceled. VDARE advocates for “patriotic immigration reform” and trades in white nationalist ideology, and Tancredo was supposed to be the keynote speaker. Tancredo called it “appalling” and “infuriating” that Republicans weren’t standing up for VDARE and said “it won’t take much” to get him to run for governor.

Then last week, Colorado Politics reported on a poll conducted by Matt Braynard of the Braynard Group, which handled data collection and polling for the Trump campaign. That poll found Tancredo leading the pack among Republican primary voters, though more than half are still undecided. Tancredo had the support of more than 22 percent of respondents, with the next highest being State Treasurer Walker Stapleton with 8.5 percent. The same poll found Tancredo within the margin of error with Polis, a Democratic representative from Boulder widely considered the frontrunner on that side, in the general election. Again, nearly half of respondents were undecided, probably reflecting the low level of interest among less partisan voters more than a year away from the election.

So that was all very encouraging to Tancredo, who announced this morning that he was officially in the race after Colorado Politics broke the news Monday night.

Immigration will be a major theme of Tancredo’s campaign. He told Fox31’s Joe St. George that he would withhold funding from cities like Denver that don’t cooperate with federal immigration enforcement “to the extent that I could.”

However, Tancredo told 9 News’ Marshall Zelinger that he is “not a white supremacist, I am not a KKK supporter” and that he had “no animus” toward anyone based on race or ethnicity.

Wadhams said he’s seen the polling and believes it’s reasonably accurate.

“It’s eminently possible that Tom Tancredo could be the nominee,” he said.

Tancredo also writes a column for the right-wing website Breitbart, and he’s reportedly met with former White House advisor Steve Bannon, who has been traveling the country giving a signal boost to candidates associated with his flavor of conservative identity politics.

Expect Bannon and white nationalism to be invoked frequently in this election.

“Today, no one can afford to be complacent over the threat Tancredo represents,” wrote Ian Silverii, executive director of the liberal advocacy group ProgressNow Colorado in an emailed statement. “Across the nation, with help from Steve Bannon and the resurgent conservative fringe, far-right candidates in the mold of Tom Tancredo are sweeping away the Republican establishment. There is no ‘firewall’ in the Republican Party to stop the rise of extremists like Tancredo, who not long ago were considered far from the mainstream.”

Polis also was quick to respond to Tancredo’s entry into the race.

“Tom Tancredo has spent his career championing hate groups, vilifying immigrants and seeking divisiveness,” he said in an email. “The Colorado future I am fighting for protects everybody’s freedom and expands opportunities for all. We cannot allow Steve Bannon’s toxic brand of hate and white nationalism to take root in Colorado.”

For his part, Wadhams was circumspect about the content of Tancredo’s political rhetoric while placing him in a context in which the parties are pulling away from each other more than ever.

“Both parties keep moving to their extremes,” he said. “You can see the Democrats climbing all over themselves to go to the left.”

For the Democrats, that looks like Polis’ support for 100 percent renewable energy and Cary Kennedy’s support for a Medicaid-for-all universal health care proposal. For Tancredo, that looks like VDARE.

“That’s what prompted him to run for governor,” Wadhams said. “You’re not hearing anything about his plan for transportation or education. That tells you everything you need to know about his candidacy, by his own declaration.

“But do not underestimate his ability,” he continued. “Remember, this is a guy who has been running for public office since 1976. … He’s built a political base that is pretty formidable, and you can’t take that away from him.”

This post has been updated to include video clips of Tancredo speaking to Fox 31 and 9 News.

Erica Meltzer

Author: Erica Meltzer

Erica Meltzer covers government and politics. She's worked for newspapers in Colorado, Arizona and Illinois and once won a First Amendment Award by showing up in the wrong place at the wrong time. She served in the Peace Corps in Paraguay and can swear fluently in Guarani. She gets emotional about public libraries. Contact Erica Meltzer at 303-502-2802, emeltzer@denverite.com or @meltzere.